Au Sénégal, Sans Langue: Memoirs of a Bridge Year


I’m seeing it this way now: Tough Times and Tough People are two drunk old men in a back alley somewhere in the Bronx. The two stand shoulder to shoulder, comparing height and build; they’re almost exactly the same in both. Annoyed, they pull two crates from behind a nearby recycling bin. Spectators begin to gather: an old woman with a shopping cart and knee socks on her arms; a subway drummer with an empty water gallon dangling from a shoelace on his wrist; a couple of stoop kids with enough Snickers in their pockets to last the week. Someone pulls a card table from god-knows-where and kicks it open between the two drunk old men. Both swing their arms out like revolving doors and let their elbows clunk hard onto the table. They begin to arm wrestle. Tough Times seems to have it in the bag. He’s got Tough People’s knuckles three centimeters way from the table. A minute passes by and Tough Times still can’t get Tough People’s fist any closer to hitting the table. Almost ten minutes later and they are in the exact same position. Their crowd’s grumbles become static noise, little by little, they begin to give up and walk away. Tough Times is really sweating now. Despite the fact that it looks like he should have no problem beating Tough People, despite the fact that his strength got him this close to victory, Tough People just won’t let him quit. Tough People knows that it doesn’t matter that it looks like he will lose any minute now. He knows that Tough Times put most of his energy into his initial push and that soon, his arm will give out.

This is all I can picture when I am crying in my room. I picture the shaky fist, dangerously close to the table, dangerously close to losing. Then I remember how it will end: Tough Times will get up, kick the card table and storm away. Tough People will walk away victorious, despite the lack of audience there to witness it. Because Tough Times can’t last, but we all know about Tough People.


Before I came to Senegal, I was a Point A and Point B type of person. I knew where I stood and where I wanted to end up but didn’t care about the path it took to get there. I never stressed over how I would make things happen, only that I would make them happen and what I would do once I did.

This morning, I crossed a six-lane highway to get to school, just like I do most mornings. I am not afforded the luxury of just getting to the other side. Each sprint has to be deliberate. I have to watch my step when I jump into the grassy patch in the middle of the highway and prepare myself to sprint across the remaining three lanes. It is like that everywhere in Senegal. I cannot walk with my head held high the way I did in Miami. I cannot focus on the site before me and ignore the pattern of my steps. Often, I get lost along the way or I have trouble remembering how I got somewhere, because I wasn’t looking. My head is perpetually bent towards the dirt. I watch for potholes, rocks, horse dung, mud – anything that could make me lose my balance. I have to be careful not to miss a step.

To be so uncertain in my movements is a stranger to me. As a performer, I’ve spent years training in full-body awareness. I have been taught that the audience will read into the curve of my fingers, the lazy way my arms hang, the way I cross my legs when I sit. And so I learned that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to have a confident stride. But I’m realizing now that those lessons don’t apply here. It doesn’t matter where I think I’m going, only that I should watch my step as I walk there. Here, if I focus on the end point instead of the journey, if I try to look up, I will fall.